Remembering the lost: The Gawkadal Massacre

Understanding the current conflict and occupation within Jammu and Kashmir means revisiting the events of late 1989 and 1990. Perhaps there is no singular flashpoint other than the massacre at Gawkadal (sometimes referred to as Gaw Kadal) bridge in Srinagar on January 21st, 1990.

The massacre was a harbinger of the armed resistance in Kashmir and it created the conditions that the Indian government used to plan the Pandit exodus. Which also laid the groundwork for the extrajudicial killings that continue to fill shallow mass graves across occupied Kashmir.

Today, we look back at the massacre and remember the victims of that dark day.

Precursors: Chaos fills the vacuum

1989 saw the political tectonic plates shift and brought change and chaos to governments across the world. It was the beginning of the end of communism in Eastern Europe. In India, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was ousted after parliamentary elections and a minority government was led by V.P. Singh. Singh replaced the governor of J&K with Jagmohan.

During Jagmohan’s first attempt at rule, he censored the media, instituted regular curfews, and was not shy about deploying state-sanctioned violence to silence his critics.

As he took office, Jagmohan remarked, “I have promised you a clean administration, but if anyone creates a law and order problem, the cards of peace that I am carrying will slip away from my hands.”

The truth was peace was not in the cards for Kashmir. In response to public demonstrations on the 19th, police began carrying out heavy-handed raids, and over 300 people were arrested.

The day before the massacre, on January 20th, 1990, crowds assembled to protest atrocities occurring in Srinagar only to be greeted by tear gas.

In the aftermath of nighttime raids, rumors circulated that the police had sexually assaulted several women in Chotta Bazar, which is situated close to the heart of the capital city of Srinagar.
Outraged at this conduct, crowds assembled and protested throughout the city. The protesters assembled and marched throughout much of the city—from Magarmal Bagh to Padshahi Bagh, Kursoo-Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar, and Mehjoor Nagar before arriving at Lal Chowk, the famous central square of the city, and continuing its journey through Gawkadal to the old city.

As the protesters reached the Gawkadal Bridge over the famous Jehlum Bridge, they encountered the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The CRPF opened from three directions with automatic weapons fire, killing a minimum of 53 people and injuring over two hundred. These are the official statistics and are likely lower than the total number of people actually killed in the massacre. An estimate by historian and author William Dalrymple concludes a total of 280 were killed with many more injured.

In their own words: remembering the massacre

Shafiqa Dar demonstrated with her husband that day. “It seemed like Armageddon. The wounded were pleading for assistance, and those who attempted to aid them were also shot. The entire scenario was horrifying, and gunfire compelled the spectators to remain inside and observe the heinous crime helplessly, the wounded begged for their lives, but the army ignored them.

They shot everyone, including those attempting to exit [their] homes. No one was spared.”
After the massacre was over, she searched in vain for her husband. “I tried to go out of my house to look for my husband Shabir Ahmad Dar… Some of the injured leaped into the Jhelum [river] to save their lives. The entire region was subject to a severe curfew for three days. I made a concerted effort to learn where my husband was. Three days later, I learned that he too was among those killed at Gawkadal.”

Farooq Ahmed was one of the survivors of the attack. He recalls the events of that bloody day.

“The CRPF walked slowly forward across the bridge, finishing off those who were lying wounded on the ground.” He threw himself on the ground to survive the onslaught. However, the CRPF began systematically executing people who were injured. Ahmed recalls how one soldier called out “That man is alive,” when they discovered him.
He was struck in the back four times and the shoulder twice.

Ahmed survived because an officer told him not to waste the ammunition. After all, he would be “dead soon anyway.”

The CRPF was brutal in their execution of the wounded, not only killing the wounded but using dogs to sniff out those who hid among the dead.

Fozia Yasin remains haunted by that day. Even though her family sheltered in a neighbor’s kitchen during the massacre, she recalls seeing “Defenseless men and women fighting for their lives, as it rained bullets on the wooden bridge. The river underneath had turned red as bodies fell off the bridge.

Injustice for all

In the 33 years since the massacre, no one has been arrested for the killings. A First Information Report (FIR) was created to investigate and hold the perpetrators to account. The State Human Rights Commission called upon the Superintendent of Police (SSP) to give an account of the massacre. While the SSP stated that they suspect which unit fired upon the protestors, no further details have been forthcoming.

Police ultimately closed the file in 2014 after they stated that evidence in the case was destroyed after a devastating flood. Further excuses include stating that they can no longer find either survivors or the families of those killed as they have “moved out of the area.”

Final thoughts – an unbreakable cycle of violence and silence

The Gawkadal Massacre was the catalyst for the insurgency of the 90s, which set the stage for the current phase of the occupation. Jammu and Kashmir remain trapped in a repeating tragedy- the Indian military or paramilitaries will commit violence and human rights abuses against the people of Kashmir, and the victims are scared and struggle to tell their stories. Even when those stories can be told and brought before the world, nothing happens.

Those who commit the crimes know they can bury justice in a sea of red tape and bureaucratic ineptitude. Even if they are caught, they stand a reasonable chance of being acquitted from a system that has been stacked with cronies who do not view human rights abuses as a problem.

We pray that justice is done and that those who take life will be held to account. We will not forget the Gawkadal Massacre; instead, we will share the stories of the living and dead so that human memory will not forget.